December 21, 2010

Heinleinian wisdom

I'm currently in the process of re-reading Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers for the umpteenth time. If you're not familiar with this outstanding novel, don't let the title -- or the 1997 film based on the novel -- fool you. It's far from a kiddie cookie-cutter tale (although, in its original incarnation, it was intended to be). Indeed, it's a treatise on the weaknesses of our current culture, both moral and political, because we've forgotten what works. Dana Pico over at one of my favorite blogs, Common Sense Political Thought, recently commented on this during a discussion about the decline of the city of Baltimore. He writes,

Id like to say that I am constantly amazed how our modern society has managed to take 6,000 years of accumulated wisdom from every culture ever known on this planet and decide that its not worth crap, but to say that I am constantly amazed by it would be a lie. Now its just a dull feeling of, What else is new?

Heinlein, in the guise of Lt. Col. Jean V. Dubois in the novel (who is protagonist Juan Rico's high school teacher of History and Moral Philosophy), continually muses on this very subject throughout most of the novel. While not sparing vehement criticism of Marxism and communism whatsoever, Dubois doesn't let Western society off the hook for its failings either. In chapter 8, Rico, while in boot camp, reminisces about high school and Dubois's lectures:

Mr. Dubois was talking about the disorders that preceded the breakup of the North American republic, back in the XXth century. According to him, there was a time just before they went down the drain when crimes such as Dillinger's (a trooper who deserted and killed a little girl) were as common as dog fights. The Terror had not been just in North America -- Russia and the British Isles had it, too, as well as other places. But it reached its peak in North America shortly before things went to pieces.

"Law-abiding people," Dubois had told us, "hardly dared go into a public park at night. To do so was to risk attack by wolf packs of children, armed with chains, knives, homemade guns, bludgeons ... to be hurt at least, robbed most certainly, injured for life probably -- or even killed ... Murder, drug addiction, larceny, assault, and vandalism were commonplace. Nor were parks the only places -- these things happened also on the streets in daylight, on school grounds, even inside school buildings."

Sound familiar? Heinlein wrote Troopers in 1959 -- fifty-one years ago -- yet what he writes above is found every single day in newspaper headlines and stories.

But ... why? Why are we in this exact situation today that was described by Heinlein over half a century ago? Dubois tells us:

Back to these young criminals -- they probably were not spanked as babies; they certainly were not flogged for their crimes. The usual sequence was: for a first offense, a warning -- a scolding, often without trial. After several offenses a sentence of confinement but with sentence suspended and the youngster placed on probation. A boy might be arrested many times and convicted several times before he was punished -- and then it would merely be confinement, with others like him from whom he learned still more criminal habits.

This incredible sequence could go on for years while his crimes increased in frequency and viciousness, with no punishment whatever save rare dull-but-comfortable confinements.

Suppose you merely scolded your puppy, never punished him, let him go on making messes in the house ... and occasionally locked him up in the outbuilding but soon let him back into the house with a warning not to do it again. Then one day you notice that he is a grown dog and still not housebroken -- whereupon you whip out a gun and shoot him dead.

Rico responds, "Why ... that's the craziest way to raise a dog I ever heard of!"

Indeed. And Colonel Dubois explains why it was crazy: People like "social workers" and "child psychologists" attempted to appeal to children's "better nature." They assumed "Man has a moral instinct." But man is not born with a moral sense -- it is acquired -- "through training, experience, and hard sweat of the mind." [Child] criminals never acquired moral sense, hence the efforts of said social workers and child psychologists was for naught. The only instinct one is born with is that for survival, and the only sense these people developed was "a shaky loyalty to a peer group, a street gang."

Dubois continues with perhaps the summary of Heinlein's entire book:

The basis of all morality is duty, a concept with the same relation to group that self-interest has to individual. Nobody preached duty to these kids in a way they could understand -- that is, with a spanking. But the society they were in told them endlessly about their "rights."

In a nutshell, Heinlein's future society in Troopers has been constructed by veterans -- those who have freely chosen to do a term of service. Only they get to vote -- because they, through their free choice, have demonstrated that they can serve the greater good; that is, humanity as a whole. If this sounds Marxian, think again -- the words "free choice" demolish that concept. There's no conscription in Troopers; you can serve if you wish and gain the franchise, or you choose not to, but still enjoy all the freedoms that Western nations enjoy now -- save suffrage. (And if you think that's authoritarian in itself, consider: countries restrict voting rights all the time, the most ludicrous of which is age.) If this scenario sounds fascist, also think again. For one, again, suffrage has always had limitations on who could exercise such. (Heinlein once remarked about his novel's critics in this regard "I think I know what offends most of my critics the most about STARSHIP TROOPERS: It is the dismaying idea that a voice in governing the state should be earned instead of being handed to anyone who is 18 years old and has a body temperature near 37C.")

Second, Heinlein merely extrapolates on what many of our Founding Fathers noted about what was necessary for our nation to survive, notably and especially, morality. For instance, take John Adams:

We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion . . . Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

In the West today, it can be argued that self-interest has come to dominate duty, as Colonel Dubois would put it. And Dubois isn't talking about "duty" as an idiot like Joe Biden would -- like saying paying higher taxes is a patriotic "duty." Politicians today become such merely to enrich themselves, to make laws for everyone else but themselves, and want other people to put their lives on the line to do their bidding. Dubois absolutely rips how Western militaries operated -- a gazillion officers, most of whom never saw a single day of combat, and how only certain soldiers would do the actual fighting. In Troopers (and in one of the few book quotes to make it into the movie), "everybody fights, nobody quits." Irregardless of rank.

Which brings us back to Dana Pico's original comment about "accumulated wisdom." Dare I delve into the travails of wealthy and pampered societies? Those which get so comfortable with themselves that so-called "experts" are churned out who "know" how to do things better than ever before, going so far as to outright ignore basic human nature?

Ben Franklin once said, "[O]nly a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters." I think that, beginning with the grumblings, mostly by those on the right during the latter half of the Bush administration, some were seemingly heeding Ben's profound words, on which Heinlein extrapolated much further in his novel. People were -- are -- fed up with the corruption, fed up with the feeling of the "more need of masters" (ie, more government) later ushered in by Bush's successor.

This post is not an advocation for the actual, military-led type of society that Heinlein posited in Starship Troopers. What it is, very much like Heinlein's novel, is a warning of sorts.

Posted by Hube at December 21, 2010 05:09 PM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

An excellent article. Starship Troopers has been one of my favorite novels since I read it the first time when I was 10 (1959). Another moment I always remember is when someone in the class comments about violence never solving anything. Heinlein's comment (once again through Col. Dubois) is another great insight into human behavior as it really is, not as the "intelligent ones" would have us believe. To a point, violence can and has solved just about everything since time recorded. The key is being on the winning side of the violence. If you are, you write the history; if not, you become a footnote.

Posted by: Chief Pescador at December 23, 2010 08:16 PM

Many thanks for the kudos, Chief! And yes -- that is indeed another great moment in the novel ... one of the few that actually (and thankfully) made it into the movie.

Posted by: Hube at December 23, 2010 08:34 PM

What I do we need Contracting people who understand the dynamics of construction, but instead are grammarians and bean counters. Which is to say we have people who micro-manage society and miss the big picture of everything is going to hell.

Posted by: Yorkshire at December 25, 2010 08:09 PM


Posted by: Yorkshire at December 25, 2010 08:11 PM


I had intended to correct an aside within a comment I made on your neighbor Dana's blog concerning your posting.

He had as you know, featured your remarks on Heinlein's Starship Troopers, and I was commenting on the film makers' deliberate references to what one would think of as anachronistic or obsolete (gas projectile) technology.

It appears however that in the movie the troopers were in fact supposed to be using cased, and not caseless rounds as I suggested. Even more retro and limiting I guess.

As to the theme of the Troopers book, your real topic, an interesting if small parallel can be found in the novel version of Fahrenheit 451; where Clarisse McClellan ( an adolescent in the novel version) says, "Six of my friends have been shot in the last year alone".

It's illuminating that both authors, Heinlein and Bradbury, premised tacitly accepted extreme social or casual youth violence - inconceivable as a reality at the time they wrote - as part of the social context or background of their futuristic novels.

Posted by: DNW at December 28, 2010 02:53 PM